The last piece I wrote for college. It lives right in here (I’m pounding my chest tearfully). Salud.
“We’re with the Vipers!” Season 6, Episode 9: The Ride
During the last 10 years on the American homescreen, the viewing public has witnessed the birth (or reincarnation) of timeless entertainment – let’s call it Art Television. This is a movement of auteurs, filmmakers interested in applying their skills to the strange serial format of the small screen. The granddaddy (or perhaps more accurately, the godfather) of Art Television is indisputably The Sopranos, that celebrated long-running series which combined excellent acting, writing, music, and overall narrative in a perfect storm of televisual experience. It was a show about politics – the politics of family and culture and self-identity, with a lovely veil of complex plot carefully laid over it.
And the best way The Sopranos successfully evoked realism within the complex, lovable, dysfunctional American family was through pop music. And not just contemporary pop music (like an occasional Stone Temple Pilots or Moby tune, forever branding the series as early 2000s), but songs from all decades and genres. Songs that accompany entire lives. From mob takedowns to quiet mother-daughter chats in the kitchen, this iconic family does most of their arguing, crying, romancing, and laughing to a soundtrack. Were one (and by one, I mean some guy on the Internet) to catalogue every single song used in the series, from end credits to musical numbers to radios blaring in the background, the list would be staggeringly long. And that’s the way real life is – your favorite songs rotate through your head, constantly colliding with the ambient noise of the culture around you.
Tony Soprano, that dynamic Mafioso-cum-family-man, encapsulates so much about what is wonderful about the use of music in this show. This is a looming, confident, and deeply disturbed leader of men; he is also a family man, world-weary, gazing guiltily at his wife and children from the tinted window of his SUV as he drives off toward a contracted murder. This is a guy that started life out amongst barbershop quartets and the girl groups of the ‘60s, reaching his youthful peak in the early ‘70s with the advent of jagged, drum-heavy rock. Tony’s sense of gnawing nostalgia often takes the form of music, rearing its beautiful gnarly head when he yearns for a taste of excitement or love – anything different than the familiar soundtrack of so many Italians around a dark poker table. We often see him in his car, singing (or rather, shouting) Journey in a charming, dad-ish kind of way. Tony often finds that the best way to deal with an unwanted conscience or conflict is to lose himself in his favorite sounds. He slips into them, earnestly, desperately, like a second skin.
In the Season 1 Episode, “Pax Soprana,” we see Tony struggling with the idea of psychotherapy, which he has recently begun in order to deal with anxiety and depression. The episode excavates Tony’s dependence on women to understand him, dissect him, and save him; his female psychotherapist enters into his daily thoughts and he wavers between images of her as professional help, traditional mother figure, and attractive mate yet-to-be-bedded. His doctor, Dr. Melfi, challenges his ideas about the way women should interact with a man like him, but also recalls in her mannerisms his wife Carmela, who consistently needles Tony and attempts to drag out the truth. The episode features a dream sequence, both humorous and unsettling: Tony lies in bed while an anonymous female companion pleasures him under the covers. He writhes slowly as sweet sounds of doo-wop seep into the candlelit room; the point-of-view switches to right above his face, and he smiles as he lip-syncs the words to “What Time Is It?” by the Jive Five. “What time is it? Just an hour more,” he mouths as he loses himself in delight. The dulcet sounds of his youth surround the two in bed, and Tony revels in his domain – until the woman emerges, and we see it is Dr. Melfi in her business suit. Tony’s fantasy ends abruptly, and the significance of the dream is clear: Tony’s familiar world of male-female relationships, clearly delineated by the culture of decades past and the romanticism of classic pop, is being turned inside-out. He can no longer turn to serenading and possessing women in order to comfort himself.
This point is somewhat ironic, considering Tony’s constant presence at the Bada Bing, a local strip club and front for mob activities. In almost every episode, the camera pans around the bar to reveal him sitting pensively, smoking and nursing a drink while strippers gyrate all around him to classic rock and soul. AC/DC, Al Green, the Kinks, even Frank Sinatra – anonymous women with dead eyes twist gently in Tony’s periphery, providing an ideal backdrop of his favorite tunes (soaked with fuzzy bass) and ladies who exist solely for visual enjoyment. It is yet another example of music as medication for the stressed-out boss who finds it harder and harder to connect to the real world, to negotiate the lines between his insular circle and the society who reviles and celebrates people like himself. It becomes apparent as the show continues that Tony constantly feels a painful longing for “the old days”, when he imagines that criminal enterprises were dirtier, more instinctive, less dependent on young henchmen and newly-immigrated foreign contacts. As the show reaches later seasons, he searches more and more urgently for his manhood as he imagines it should be.
That search brings us to the iconic moment Tony has with his nephew Christopher in the Season 6 episode “The Ride.” The two are driving along an empty road in the middle of the night, slightly drunk, when they come upon a group of union workers packing cases of fine wine into a truck. Tony stops the car, turning up the radio as he steps behind his door to relieve himself. The sharp chords of Free’s 1970 hit “All Right Now” hit the still night air as Tony and his nephew survey the situation; “You seein’ this?” he asks Christopher in a low voice as Paul Rodgers moans “Oh yeah” in his rough, grinning way. The two begin to surreptitiously throw wine into their own trunk, giggling as electric guitar confidently smolders around them during the song’s long bridge. When the workers walk out and catch them, Tony and Christopher immediately draw their guns, forcing the other men to the ground while mocking them with savage enjoyment. “You’re fucking with the Vipers, asshole!” one of their victims complains. “SHUT UP!” Christopher snarls as the guitar wails higher and higher. He and Tony decide to flee with their stolen booty, and they quickly jump into the car amidst haphazard gunshots fired off by the workers; Tony speeds away as Chris leans out the window, straining to shoot one of their attackers. Finally, he squeezes off a bullet that hits a man in the leg. “I hit him!” Chris screams in delight. “Fuck yeah!” And then the song crashes back in, loudly, finally, with a gigantic chord that propels the car around the corner and triumphantly down the highway. With his younger counterpart, Tony has reclaimed the wild, tough days of his youth for one night, and “All Right Now” signaled the power of his victory. “That was some old-school shit,” says Chris reverently, as the rhythm fades into the night.
There are so many scenes like these in The Sopranos, where Tony is musically reminded of his time as a young thug, but the most affecting ones occur when his adolescence is juxtaposed with that of his son, AJ. AJ lacks the fortitude and skewed moral compass of his father; they differ in just about every respect, including the way they choose to score their lives. While Tony is often shown with his cherished classic rock, all hard sounds and driving rhythms, AJ is more interested in conscious music – acoustic folk, political anthems, both contemporary and timeless. There is a particularly intense and beautiful moment in the final episode of the series, where AJ takes a new love interest out for a drive in his car after being released from the hospital after a suicide attempt. AJ converses morosely with his friend, admitting a hatred for the materialism which surrounds him but also acknowledging his pathetic dependence upon it. The two sit ensconced in a giant SUV, staring out at nature, trying to make sense of their rapidly dwindling youth and feeling the crackle of sexual tension. The fresh-faced girl smiles mysteriously and presses play on the car’s CD player; Bob Dylan’s haunting “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” begins to pour out of the speakers with the kind of remarkable clarity that only expensive technology can offer. “He not busy being born is busy dying,” Dylan observes above a web of bluesy guitar plucking, surrounding the two teenagers as they tentatively draw closer. The endless stream of words detailing government conspiracy and the rampant sadness of consumer culture wrap around the two as they embrace sweetly; it is an indelible image of modern youth, a moment of authenticity manufactured by machinery. These youngsters and their love feel totally connected to Dylan’s 1960s, and yet so far removed; here the passage of time is both scary and undeniable. Their kisses seem desperate.
However, this encounter is not to be. Soon, the two smell smoke; leaves are burning underneath the car as a result of an overheated engine. The two scramble out of the oversized doors and run to a clearing, where they watch the blaze slowly overtake the vehicle. The small patch of burning brush turns into a vicious fire as nature overtakes the beastly SUV. Flames lick the inside of the car as Dylan continues to sing: “It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred…” His voice quickly dips and dies as the CD player melts. The guitar snaps and stops. And then the gas tank catches fire, and the car explodes. Smoke pours into the sky as the boy and his girl watch; their eyes are full of horror and shock and a little bit of understanding. The empty silence where Dylan once sang seems to speak: Your true self is an illusion. You are ephemeral. And no matter what your choices, your crimes, your favorite songs, your memories – they will slowly fade and burn away.